How a Shellfish-Heavy Feast Helped Create Conservative Judaism in America

Jan. 18 2018

Last weekend, a Jewish group in San Francisco engaged in a reenactment of the so-called treyfa banquet that took place in Cincinnati in 1883. Held to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations—the predecessor to today’s Union of Reform Judaism—the original event received its nickname because of the variety of non-kosher (in Yiddish, treyf) food served there, which created something of a scandal. But reporting on the more recent festivities has gotten the facts of the original event wrong; Jonathan Sarna sets the record straight:

The original treyfa banquet . . . capped ceremonies aimed, ironically, at unifying American Jews. . . . It symbolized the longstanding goal of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, president of [America’s first rabbinical school] Hebrew Union College, to lead a broad, ideologically diverse coalition committed to strengthening American Judaism.

Unlike this month’s reenactment, the infamous Cincinnati banquet prepared for the 100 Jewish leaders served no pork at all. Many Reform Jews of that time believed that abstaining from pork sufficiently distinguished them from their non-Jewish neighbors. . . . So Jews avoided pork products, even if they consumed [non-kosher] seafood.

The many non-kosher foods that did appear on the menu of the lavish nine-course banquet—clams, crabs, shrimp, frogs’ legs, and so forth—were not . . . the product of careful planning and prearranged advertising. They resulted instead from carelessness and lack of proper oversight. The well-known Jewish caterer who planned the dinner took no account of the fact that traditionalists had been invited to the celebration and created a banquet like so many other lavish Jewish banquets held in his club—akin to non-Jewish banquets, minus the pork. . . .

Wise also knew the banquet was a blunder. After all, he himself kept a kosher home—his second wife, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, insisted upon it. But he was not the kind of leader who believed in making apologies. Instead, he lashed out against his critics, insisting that the dietary laws had lost all validity, and ridiculed them for advocating “kitchen Judaism.”

The treyfa banquet helped pave the way for the creation of a more traditional Jewish rabbinical seminary, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, [now the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism]. Once Wise abandoned the goal of “union” and cast his lot with more radical Reform Jews who repudiated Jewish dietary laws, those favoring a conservative approach to Jewish life moved to establish a more religiously traditional seminary to compete with Hebrew Union College.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: American Jewish History, American Judaism, History & Ideas, Jewish Theological Seminary, Kashrut, Reform Judaism

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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Read more at Commentary

More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays